And so, I re-opened my beloved restaurant, Le Sang D'Or. It was a mere shade of the original, I confess, and only a very few of its customers had ever even been aware of the existence of its former incarnation, but it was, in some ways, home. Sam suggested that we think of another name, after all, the French seemed both pretentious and nonsensical, but soon recanted when he realized that, for precisely these reasons, it was perfect.
One might wonder, given the untimely deaths of those who had generally served as my benefactors in the past, how I could scrape together the capital for such a huge investment - and in New York City no less. Given the banal reality of the situation, perhaps I shall leave this detail to the imagination. You will forgive me, I'm sure.
There was a certain emptiness in the atmosphere without Sandy stopping by to remark on my relentless sense of decor, but the Sandys of years long past were there in surplus amounts - gorgeous, sullen young men eying up others, barely daring to say a word. I played a part in several of those relationships, which often lasted nary a moment, but at least cleared the bar a little for the moping and brooding of the next generation.
Where moping and brooding was paramount, I began to realize one would always find John Jeckyll. Older than the usual crowd, certainly out (if "proud" would be going a little too far), but generally disdainful of everyone, regardless of sex. I fell in love with him immediately.
He came in after hours, shirt sleeves rolled up, hair falling onto his forehead, smoking as though he expected me to regard him as a new Bogart. He was a pianist and composer, working on Broadway mostly, but then most people are, or claim to be. He kicked the piano in the corner, told me how much he expected it would fail to live up to his expectations, and sat down.
"You're not allowed to smoke in here." Honestly, I was amused rather than annoyed. I've found that it's an attitude one really should cultivate as a restaurateur.
"You're closed," he pointed out, quite rightly, and played.
The piano was bad, I admit, and perhaps I was swayed more by the crisp English accent and the elegant fingers than by the playing, but I was convinced even before he hit the keys in frustration and opened the damn thing up to re-tune a few reticent notes.
I hired him, and fucked him, which was, of course, an unforgivable combination.
Oh, John. It had been a while for me, the sort of while that would have verged on embarrassing but for my now reasonably venerable age. Single gay men over the age of sixty (or, let's be honest, over the age of thirty) rarely have the opportunity to share a bed with a man who genuinely excites them. I expect, however, that John was past caring who his partner was. He was rough, bordering on violent. Bruises were left, and felt.
I wish I could say that he cried in my arms when I thoughtlessly asked him afterward if perhaps he had an even more evil doppelganger. It was only later, much later, that he told me about his brother, sweet James, who had drifted away to sleep rather than cope with the torments of AIDS for another moment. But that night, that very first night, all he did was ask me not to leave.
Time moved on. Even in a faltering economy, the restaurant somehow broke even, and the piano remained in tune. Perhaps John had offers to work in the theatre - I generally expected to find him gone every evening - but he stayed, playing better music than my little business venture deserved, and resolutely chewing nicotine gum until he could take a break in the freezing New York air.
He had had beautiful boys before - hard-muscled dancers and actors and trombonists - and I was too old for him, too soft. John liked his handcuffs. Liked to push and have someone shove back.
"I killed a man once," I told him. We were playing war games in the safety of my apartment, cold, uncomfortable steel around my wrists. Every other boyfriend I've had who had been so inclined had used neckties, or play cuffs that would be reasonably easy to break in an emergency. There was absolutely no give in these and, far from panic, they encouraged me to give in - to relax, and wait for the inevitable.
John's shirt was on the floor. He was pacing the room in a wifebeater, my beautiful captor, as I watched muscles tense beneath veins. He wasn't quite young enough to be fearless anymore, not even young enough to be cynical, and every secret he told me in those days let me know just how much experience he had had with pain.
The facade flickered. "In the army," he said, bluntly, refusing to be shocked. It wasn't even a question.
My shoulders were beginning to hurt. "No, darling. I barely made it through boot camp without sucking enough cocks to be discharged."
"Don't tell me you're a cold-blooded killer, ducks."
"This is the time for confessions, isn't it?"
John pushed too-long hair back off his face. "It's only a game." He sat down and patted his pockets for cigarettes. "What did he do?"
What had Sandy Sonnenberg done? Nothing. Too much. "Does it matter?"
Perhaps he thought I was lying. Perhaps the stakes had simply become too high. But he eyed me for a long time before pulling my slacks down from my hips, kneeling between my legs, and taking me in his mouth. The links of the handcuffs rattled when I came.
It was a long time before he released me, and we never played that game again.
In the spring, he took me upstate to the country house of his friend, a choreographer whose name I vaguely recognized from Playbills. His brother had been there, he told me, as well as another mutual friend who had died in the past year. But he still hoped to see some familiar faces. I doubt he had any hopes of showing me off, certainly not when his ex Ramon was draped naked over the deck, but we all got along tolerably well, even if John spent most of the holiday weekend making love to Gregory's piano.
"You don't know how much he's changed," Gregory told me while we sat in the garden, swapping stories of old Broadway and younger lovers. "And for the better, too."
I rubbed his forearm affectionately. "You don't know how much I've changed."
We could hear almost nothing in our bedroom at night - I'd missed that sort of rural calm, after living among the traffic and bustle of Baltimore and LA and New York... and Paris, for a time. John was the last person whose footsteps I heard on the stairs. He'd been playing all evening, notes resounding throughout the old wood of the house. By the time he slipped under the covers, he smelled and tasted of smoke. I didn't mind.
"Did you mean it?" he asked softly.
I pulled him into me, feeling his heart pounding, the cold sweat on his back. "I love you," I said.
He nodded, and kissed me again.